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Pastas take the prize at the Florentine

Chef Todd Stein's latest brings back some old favorites

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[Update: In spring 2012 executive chef Todd Stein left the Florentine for Piccolo Due; in his place is Coco Pazzo vet Chris Macchia.]

I can't be sure he didn't roll his eyes when he said it, but one of the servers at the Florentine told me that the shelved books lining the outer limits of the sprawling dining room are meant to suggest that you're eating in the "library of an Italian mansion." That "mansion" happens to be the luxury JW Marriott Chicago, and the red-shirted servers suggest a Denny's-like corporate army rather than anything as dashing and heroic as the Redshirts who followed 19th-century Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi into battle. During empty hours—like the ones on my visits—the staff can seem idle as students on study breaks.

Not so for executive chef Todd Stein, who can often be seen purposefully striding across the dining room on critical tasks. Last summer the MK vet stepped away from an all-too-brief tenure at Cibo Matto—another corporate-owned hotel restaurant—and moved over to this, the first Chicago outpost of BLT Restaurants, a steak-centric New York group once fronted by Laurent Tourondel. BLT had also recently brought on another (sort of) local talent in corporate chef Rodelio Aglibot, who previously left his prints all over the pan-Asian gimmickry at Billy Dec's Sunda.

Yeah, I know—I'm in the minority in sneering at Sunda, and I'm not suggesting that the Florentine is engaged in the same brand of cynical culinary cherry-picking as Dec. But no one should think that the food here is a true snapshot of simple, rustic, Tuscan food, as its name might imply. There is, however, still enough to recommend it to fans of Cibo Matto in the early days, when Stein and his sous chef, Russell Kook—a runner-up on Hell's Kitchen who's followed him here—were putting out some of the most exciting Italian food around in a lively, interesting space.

I could barely wait for the chance to scarf down this crew's texturally and technically flawless pastas again, and in that respect I wasn't disappointed, even though in a few cases they arrived terribly oversalted. That didn't stop me from demolishing the otherwise opulent duck egg carbonara, rich yolky bucatini piled under a snow cap of grated pecorino—a Stein signature, that by virtue of pancetta already flirts with high sodium levels. Nor did it the rectangular squid ink chittarra tossed with crabmeat and bread crumbs, chile, and mint, and the wide sheets of pappardelle (no sodium problem there) billowing among roasted mushrooms, parsnips, and shards of Parmigiano Reggiano. Better judgment will tell you to stop eating even the oversize half-portions long before the reflex to kicks in.

The pastas can put competent but not terribly memorable second courses at a disadvantage—and will certainly leave you no match for a dino-size braised lamb shank with hearty farro risotto and sweet caramelized peppers, or thick slices of veal tenderloin draped over chickpeas and kale. You might have a better chance against fish dishes (also a strong suit at Cibo Matto), particularly pan-roasted fillets such as whitefish with cured tomatoes and roasted fennel or trout with rock shrimp, leeks, and chanterelles, all drizzled with lobster vinaigrette.

Even antipasti can be daunting. There are some moderately portioned plates, like a simple roasted beet salad or a tangle of grilled octopus with saffron aioli and cured tomatoes (Cibo again, winningly). But dishes such as the three fat scallops with fregola (a Sardinian pasta similar to Israeli couscous) and a dollop of butternut squash are practically main courses. And without several able-bodied assistants, don't dare order the shimmering crock of mascarpone-laden polenta accompanied by a wooden board of assorted add-ins (short ribs, caramelized onions, caponata, roasted peppers) or you're done for the night.

There are a number of overfamiliar options filling out the menu—roasted half chicken, Berkshire pork chops, steaks, short ribs—but if there's anything to recommend them, the staff doesn't try too hard to let you know. And who can open an Italian restaurant these days without a pizza station?

There are TVs above the bar if you want a diversion from these cliches, and there are the books too, after all. I'm grateful Stein and company are able to continue working their magic with pasta, but this library is a less surprising, less playful environment for them to do it in.   

[Editor's note: Both chef Todd Stein and sous chef Russell Kook have since left the restaurant.]

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